State lawmaker proposes expanding exotic animals ban in wake of Vernon Hills’ loose serval; ‘Not appropriate in a residential environment’

After a wildcat being kept as a pet got loose in a Vernon Hills neighborhood, a state representative introduced legislation proposing a ban on the possession of the African feline, called a serval, in Illinois.

Rep. Daniel Didech, D-Buffalo Grove, proposed the legislation during the first week of the 2024 General Assembly session. Vernon Hills is part of Didech’s district.

Two months ago, an African serval was found running loose after a 911 caller reported being cornered by the wildcat as she walked her dog in Vernon Hills’ Grosse Point subdivision.

“The keeping of dangerous, exotic animals as pets is not appropriate in a residential environment,” Didech said. “It is time to update our dangerous animals law to ensure we are adequately keeping families safe throughout Illinois.”

The serval was owned by a Grosse Pointe couple, who worked with the police to catch the fugitive feline after nearly three hours. While transporting the serval back to its enclosure, the cat sustained fatal injuries and died, according to Vernon Hills police.

Because servals are not included in the state’s dangerous animal statute, Didech said it limited Vernon Hills’ ability to respond to the November incident.

Deputy Police Chief Shannon Holubetz said the village was not able to cite the serval owners because the animal was not regulated under any local, county or state statutes.

Village staff made a recommendation to the Village Board, which ultimately passed an ordinance to update regulations on wild animals as pets to include the African wildcat.

“Our initial concern of this incident was strictly for public safety,” Holubetz said. “This was a case where the incident unfortunately resolved itself because the animal passed away. Had the serval not suffered the injuries it did, we would have been without any real teeth to seek the animal’s removal.”

Proposing the statewide legislation is, “illustrative of the type of relationship that I try to keep with my local officials,” Didech said. “We have a very collaborative approach.”

The proposal bans the possession of servals and also caracals, kangaroos, wallabies or any hybrid, intergrade or cross of a dangerous animal, building on current law that bans possession of a lion, tiger, leopard, ocelot, jaguar, cheetah, margay, mountain lion, lynx, bobcat, jaguarundi, bear, hyena, wolf, coyote or nonhuman primate.

While Didech doesn’t know why servals weren’t included in the original statute, he speculated it’s because the species is a newer, trending exotic animal being brought into the United States.

At about 40 pounds as an adult, the serval is capable of causing significant injury. The native North African wildcat features a long neck, large ears and can live for about a decade in the wild.

Relying on their spotted coat for camouflage, the carnivores hunt more efficiently than lions, according to National Geographic, and eat rodents, snakes, birds and frogs.

Serval sightings are not new in Illinois. After escaping from an apartment in October, an African serval was caught after weeks on the loose in Decatur.

Exceptions for the possession of dangerous animals include having them at a properly maintained zoological park, federally licensed exhibit, circus, college or university, scientific institution, research laboratory, veterinary hospital, hound-running area or animal refuge in an escape-proof enclosure.

Didech is working with experts at the Illinois Humane Society and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to update the dangerous animals law. The representative said both departments are supportive of his legislative proposal.

“The people who deal with this on a professional level are telling us that this is something that’s important to do,” he said.

The proposal, known as HB 4446, will be considered during the 2024 legislative session. Didech anticipates it will go before committee sometime in March or April.